Why the alert sign glows orange
US buttons down as signs hint at attack during hajj.
Al Qaeda "chatter" is intensifying. So, too, are threats of retaliation to any US-led invasion by Saddam Hussein. And Islamic groups sympathetic to Iraq's plight - like the Palestinian Hamas - are threatening to strike US interests.Skip to next paragraph
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That's why US officials have placed the terrorist threat index at "high risk," only the second time it's been raised to that level since 9/11. While authorities have long predicted another terrorist attack on US targets, either at home or abroad, intelligence officials and outside experts see several factors at work that make this a particularly vulnerable time:
• The "yoohoo" factor. It's well known that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist acolytes, who have been lying low, like the limelight. And with the US pushing much more, at least publicly, toward a showdown with Iraq, they could be ready to act because they're frustrated or because they think the US is more vulnerable at the moment.
Although the US has done a great deal to dismantle Al Qaeda, the directors of both the CIA and FBI have recently said the organization is as dangerous as it was prior to 9/11. "Osama [bin Laden] may be saying, 'Yoohoo, US, don't count us out,' " says Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler.
• The "cornered" theory. If Iraqi President Hussein, the ultimate survivor, were to launch a terrorist attack, it would most likely come when he is backed into a corner. And with the inspections regime becoming more intrusive and the US moving inexorably toward war, the walls are clearly closing in.
Experts doubt Mr. Hussein would attack the American homeland. For one thing, he probably doesn't have the weapons to do so. But either he or his top lieutenants could launch attacks with weapons of mass destruction on American soldiers and other interests in the Middle East and Europe.
• General Muslim angst. More likely than a hit by Hussein, say Mr. Post and other experts, would be an increase in Hamas and Islamic jihad terrorism aimed at Israel. The already visceral and vocal reaction many Muslims have had to US policy in the Middle East will likely only increase. Indeed, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, released a letter Friday in which he admonished Muslims everywhere to strike "Western interests" if the US goes to war.
All this is believed to have contributed to the US moving its alert system to "orange" on Friday. The only other time it's been that high is last September, just before the attacks in Bali. Jewish sites in the US are one area that may be a target. "Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that Al Qaeda may attempt to attack Americans in the United States or abroad," during the Hajj, a Muslim holy period that began yesterday and ends Feb. 14, said Attorney General John Ashcroft on Friday.
Yet the question persists: How well prepared is the US for another assault? Most experts think if there is another strike, it won't be another World Trade Center-type attack, though they don't rule that out. Instead, they say it is more likely to be a "soft target." That could include hotels, apartment buildings, and tourist attractions. And intelligence officials say they are hearing all sorts of threats.